Holidays on a Budget

Holidays on a Budget

Even in normal circumstances, the holidays can be stressful.  With the concerns about travel and the impact on many people’s income from COVID-19, the 2020 holidays are likely to be even more challenging.  In this post, I’ll provide ideas that might help alleviate some of that stress and help make the most of the season, even if you have to celebrate your holidays on a budget.

Gifts for Family

Most holiday celebrations in December and early January involve gift giving.  For me, finding the right gifts is far and away the most stressful part of the holidays even when money hasn’t been an issue.  If you need to get through the holidays on a budget, it becomes even more stressful.

Make a Holiday Budget

Every year, before I do any shopping, I make a list of all of the people for whom I “need” to buy gifts.  An important part of this process is figuring out who really needs a gift.  Did we exchange gifts last year?  Is each person really still so close I want to give him or her a gift?  Will it affect our relationship too severely if I suggest, in advance, that we not exchange gifts even if we’ve done so in the past?

Once I have my list, I then assign a budget amount to each person.  Parents get one amount per person, nieces and nephews another, and so on.  I check to make sure the total of my budgets isn’t more than I can or want to spend on gifts.  If it is, I revisit both the list of people and the individual budgets until the total amount is tolerable.

Having budgets for each person narrows the possible choices for gifts, sometimes making it easier to identify ideas for each person.  The hardest part is sticking to the budget, but paying your bills during or after the holidays will be much easier if you do.

Draw Names

Is your list of names too long?  One option is to draw names for people in a group, such as your family or other group that exchanges gifts.  A variation on this idea is Secret Santa (or whomever is associated with your holiday) where you keep the identity of the gift giver a secret.  In both cases, buying fewer presents will help keep your holidays on a  budget.

For many years, my husband’s family drew names for the people in my generation (his siblings and the spouses) and put a cap on the amount that could be spent on the gift.  Instead of having to buy gifts for 2 other couples or 4 other adults, we each bought just one gift for a single other person.  And, because the cap was less than we tended to spend before we started drawing names, the savings was even greater.   After a while, we decided that the people in our generation didn’t need gifts from each other at all, reducing both expenses and stress.

Make Presents

Lots of people enjoy getting homemade gifts.  Do you have a talent, like art or sewing?  Or do you enjoy cooking?  Some of my favorite gifts are things that my daughter has sewed for me and a ceramic pot for plants that a friend of mine made when I was sick many years ago.

Around the holidays, quick breads, such as banana, cranberry or zucchini bread, can be real treats to give as gifts.  They wrap really nicely, too.   Or, you could give pies or cookies.  One of my mother’s friends was quite a chef and gave homemade truffles as gifts.

One gift that I have given my kids and several nieces and nephews when they were newly living away from home (and not in a dorm) is a cooler full of frozen dinners.  I’d make a couple of extra servings of whatever meal I was making for our family and put them in labeled Tupperware containers.  They didn’t take much work and were greatly appreciated.

Coupon Books

Another essentially free gift idea is a coupon book of things you will do for a friend or family member.  One friend suggested giving 30-minute back rubs, car washing, cooking a favorite meal or taking a walk together.  My kids often gave me coupon books (see photo below) that included making a meal, doing the dishes, taking out the trash and the like.

Coupon Book

In many cases, you’ll enjoy giving the gift of your time as much as the recipient enjoys receiving it.

Making the Holidays More Fun for Kids

In many families, a large portion of the joy of the holidays comes from the laughs and smiles of young children.  Here are a few ideas for bringing more joy to your kids, even when putting your holidays on a budget.

Smaller Presents

When they were young, my kids seemed much more excited by having lots of things to unwrap than by getting expensive items.  Whenever possible, I would wrap the major pieces of a large present in several packages and wrap a number of inexpensive presents, just to increase the package count.  It might seem like a larger number of smaller packages might encourage kids to want too much.  I think, at very young ages (younger than 6 or 7), the joy is more important than that message.

New Book Every Few Days

If you want help getting your children into the holiday spirit, you could buy a handful of inexpensive books and give them one every few days leading up to your family’s big day. Robyn @ADimeSaved provides a list of 10 Ways to Get Free Books for Kids.  For some families, books focusing on the holiday might be appropriate whereas as any book that interests the child might be better in other families.  A nice benefit of buying books for your children is that you can then use them as an excuse to spend time together.  Bedtime stories were a very popular event every night at our house, even after both kids were old enough to read.

Advent Calendars

One of our family traditions was an Advent calendar.  An Advent calendar provides a small gift on each day from December 1 through 24.  While that tradition is specific to Christmas, it could easily be adapted for other holidays.

One of our nannies made Advent calendars for both of our kids, as it was a tradition in her family in Germany.  (As you can tell, we had some terrific nannies.)  She started with a heavy plastic sheet and covered one side with green felt.  Next, she cut it into the shape of a tree and sewed 24 pairs of numbers (from 1 to 24) and key rings.  She then found 24 inexpensive presents for each of the kids which she wrapped and hung from the key rings.  Below is a picture of a “loaded” Advent calendar below.

Advent Calendar

My kids loved getting up every morning to open their presents.  It was such a popular tradition that I kept it up until they were in their early 20s.  My goal was to spend no more than a $1 per day per kid on these presents.  Ideas included candy (limited to about 6 or 8 days), nail clippers, hair ties for our daughter, matchbox cars for our son (still not much more than $1 a piece if bought in a package), little pads of paper, small staplers and so on.  Where we lived, Target had a whole section of $1 items that I would peruse.  Another source of $1 items is the Dollar Store.

The picture above is from a few years ago when my son was in his early 20s.  By then, he was quite happy to have his gifts alternate between pairs of socks (the roll shape packages) and candy!

Create New Traditions

The holidays can be much more than just gift giving.  In our house, our big holiday tradition was cookie-making day.  Also, on Christmas day, the extended family played bingo with Grandpa leading the game.

Cookie-making day

One Saturday every December, all the cousins and both sisters-in-law on my husband’s side would come to our house to make cookies.  When the kids were young, they primarily decorated sugar cookies (frosting, sprinkles and the like) and went off to play in other parts of the house.  As they got older, they would help cut the sugar cookies, make corn flake wreath cookies (essentially corn flakes held together with melted butter and marshmallows, decorated with red hots) and join in making of other types of cookies, many of which had no relationship to the holiday but were well-loved.

One of the many memories from cookie-making day was the day that I put a metal teapot on the stove to make hot chocolate.  I got so involved in making cookies that I forgot about it.  A little while later, after all of the water had boiled away, the spout blew off the teapot and the heat caused the glass stove top to shatter.  There were glass shards not only all over the kitchen but into the dining room and family room.  As you can imagine, the adults spent a lot of time sweeping and vacuuming while we sent the kids to other rooms to play.  Fortunately, the only damage was to the teapot and stove top and no one was injured.

Make Decorations

Almost every holiday has decorations.  Keeping Up with the Bulls (@KUWTBulls) suggests growing your own pumpkins and gourds and using them to decorate for Halloween and Thanksgiving.  Similarly, she suggests making wreaths with greens and pine cones from nearby evergreen trees. I used to take greens from the yard and put them in baskets with ribbons to make our house more festive and smell nice at the same time.

Both when I was a kid and when our kids were young, our tree was decorated with paper chains or strings of popcorn and cranberries.  Although a tree is specific to Christmas, I suspect there are other decorations that could be made for whatever holiday you celebrate or just for winter, such as paper snowflakes.

When I was a teenager, I once made a gingerbread house from scratch.  The pieces didn’t go together very well, but, once it was covered in frosting and candy (the entire roof was made of Necco wafers), it looked pretty good!  Of course, now, you can buy the pieces for a gingerbread house in a box, though it probably costs more than making it from scratch.

A Family Game

As I mentioned, my husband’s family played Bingo on most holidays when it was too cold to spend much time outside.  Fabio Marciano (@fmarciano) suggested playing Bingo over Zoom.  There are several places to get Bingo cards that you can email, such as My Free Bingo Cards.  You just need to create and email them to your family members.  What a great way to keep everyone engaged if you can’t visit in person!

View Holiday Lights

When I was young, there was a pair of houses that shared a huge front yard on the way from our house to my father’s office.  Every year, that front yard was full of lighted decorations.  It was the highlight of our annual drive a few days before Christmas to look at lights.  I’m not sure how my father knew where to find the other locations we passed as this was long before the Internet.  These days many communities post tours on their websites that you can follow either by driving or on foot.  If you’ve gotten cold while looking at lights, especially if you walked, having cocoa, tea or hot apple cider is a nice way to end the evening.

Other Stuff to do in Winter

Here are some ideas of free or inexpensive things to do in the winter that aren’t related specifically to a holiday.  Nonetheless, they might help brighten your holiday season or help with the post-holiday lull.


@planneratheartblog tells me that some libraries have passes to museums that you can borrow for free in the same manner that you borrow books.  I’d never heard of such a thing!  You might check with your local library to see if they are available for museums in your community.

Outdoor Activities

For those of us that live in cold climates, there are many outdoor activities that can be done at little or no cost – sledding, hiking, ice skating on a local pond or outdoor rink, building snow forts or snow men, having a snow ball fight and so on.  Not only are these activities fun, but they also help eliminate cabin fever and provide an opportunity to get some exercise.  And, of course, exercise in and of itself is a great for morale and fighting the post-holiday blues.

Indoor Activities

When the weather isn’t conducive to any outdoor activities, there are plenty of things to do inside that are free or don’t cost much.  You can always have a cup of cocoa or hot cider after you’ve come in from your outdoor activity.  Or, you could watch a movie, play a game or read a book, all of which are even better on a cold night if you are able to do them in front of a fire.

For more information on these and many, many other ideas, check out this post from Marjoelin @RadicalFire.

Other Resources

For more information about dealing with the holidays when facing financial struggles, check out this post from Amanda @MyLifeIGuess.